When Fake Test Records Are Still Too Real

Posted on behalf of Bill French, QA Engineer
In the Healthcare software world, the need for accurate and reliable test data is as strong as ever. Sometimes, the temptation may be strong to use real LIVE data to test with. But this kind of thing can be dangerous, particularly within the healthcare industry when private health information needs to remain protected! This may even keep you up at night if you are a CIO or Information Security Officer.
There have been many times in the history of software demonstration where potential customers are distracted from the software by the contents of the test data. This is not where their focus should be! Real-looking, legitimate-seeming data sounds perfect, but it can be far from. In some instances, I’ve even seen clients rattle their sabers about the data being real, even though it was completely fabricated. All because an earnest attempt at realism was made. But isn’t that what we are striving for?
On the other end of the spectrum for test data, you have glaringly obvious fake data.  But sometimes it still isn’t obvious to everyone all the time.  Again, we aren’t really accomplishing our goal here either. For example,  when getting ready to go live with a new system, you want to ensure that what you are testing with is as close to the real thing as possible.
One thing I’ve found useful when making test data is to keep everything as real as possible, but try to script in some way to replace reasons for visits or maladies with fantastic, fictional afflictions or incidents.  I found a random fantasy affliction generator online that works great for this kind of thing.  Of course, while this type of test data can generate some laughs, it usually isn’t something that can be casually shown to present or potential clients.  Unless comedy and humor are your business, that is.
Maybe your customers have a relative that suffers from Tomb Insanity or Phantom Foot, you never really know.
Wondering what folks out there in the real world use when making up test records?  I’ll confess that I do have a personal email draft saved from years ago, consisting only of a list of fake names, like Heath Field, or Chris P. Pykkle.  Always adding to it, and nice to keep when I’m having Tester’s Block™!